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By Lauren Kay
The Lion King dancer's secrets to longevity
Mercer warms up 30 minutes before curtain. “You need to be prepared
every time,” he says. “No excuses." Photo: Sara Stathas, Courtesy Disney
“When I’m a giraffe at the top of the show, I put on stilts and I’m 14 feet in the air,” says longtime Lion King ensemble member Ray Mercer. “You have to find your center of gravity, protect your neck—and perform.”
In the cast of the Disney musical for close to 11 years, Mercer knows that maintaining optimum health is essential to survive the two hours and 30 minutes, eight shows a week. It’s a test of stamina and artistry. Garth Fagan’s explosive choreography—a fusion of Horton, hip-hop, and West African dance—on top of heavy performer-meets-puppet costumes challenge even the most fit dancer. Here, Mercer shares his secrets to longevity: a serious work ethic and commitment to preparation.
The Journey to the Jungle
A self-proclaimed farm boy from Omaha, Nebraska, Mercer trained as a pre-professional gymnast until his late teens. The muscle strength and flexibility he gained from gymnastics came in handy when he took his first ballet class at 17 at the University of New Orleans. He fell instantly in love with dance, and decided to focus on refining his technique.
It was while performing in Chicago with Deeply Rooted Dance Theater that he auditioned for the national tour of The Lion King. After two years of traveling with the show, he joined the Broadway cast in 2005.
Mercer feels lucky to have found work in musical theater that fits his concert dance background. But the show has brought challenges he’d never experienced. “You have to be smart in how you approach dance when you have a puppet attached,” he says. “This is not a show you can phone in. You need to be prepared every time, without fail. I’m very strict about this. No excuses.”
Thirty minutes before curtain, Mercer completes 100 push-ups followed by sit-ups. He does a mini-barre, with pliés, tendus, dégagés, and leg swings, along with plenty of ankle and head rolls. Making sure his Achilles tendons are warm and pliable is key for the jumps and tumbling feats throughout the show (he does 40 handsprings a week). Lunges, side bends with a leg on the barre, as well as straddles on the ground round out a five-minute stretch sequence. And because the giraffe costume tasks his upper body, Mercer keeps his shoulders and arms loose with gentle stretches against a wall.
To keep his energy up during the show, Mercer finds space backstage for push-ups, totaling about 500 (!) a night. The entire production is athletically challenging, but he mentions the hyena number as particularly intense. “It’s only a minute, but it requires everything: tumbling, kicks, turns. It’s a killer!”
Ray’s Regimen Offstage
“I’ve learned throughout the years to pace myself,” Mercer says. “After a little while in the show, you know the exact amount of energy required to do each thing. There are, of course, days that are harder than others.” He stresses safety, for himself and his castmates, as the top reason to stay ready. “It can be dangerous if you’re not focused, or if you have drained all your energy,” he says. Finding a quiet corner for meditation helps him mentally prepare for performance. Though once the show is over, he says, “shut it off.”
Because of the physicality required for The Lion King, Mercer limits his time in the dance studio. He’ll occasionally drop into open classes—Horton with Milton Myers is a favorite—to stay technically sharp, though he consistently works out. “I go to the gym four days a week,” he says, “rotating the body parts that I work on, from chest, arms, shoulders and back, to abs.” To avoid overstressing his body, Mercer stays clear of the gym on two-show days.
He devotes time for personal rejuvenation, scheduling weekly massages and monthly acupuncture appointments. “It took a while for me to get used to relaxing,” he says. “But since I hold a lot of tension in my neck and my lower back from the costumes, it’s important to release those areas to prevent injuries.”
Mercer says that as he ages, his diet has changed from eating “whatever I want” to meals with more nutritional value in recent years. “Eating healthier for me isn’t about aesthetics, but for my energy,” he says. “I like a lot of healthy carbs, along with tons of fruits and veggies.” That said, he doesn’t always skimp on the sweet stuff: “I allow myself a treat every once in a while,” he says. “I’m a Dr. Pepper-a-holic!”
Inspirational outlets outside of The Lion King are also part of Mercer’s recipe for a healthy spirit. He’s choreographed works for The Ailey School, Marymount Manhattan, Philadanco, and Cleo Parker Robinson Dance. As a frequent guest teacher, he offers advice to hopeful Lion King cubs: “Hone your craft. Get all the training you can. You must have a firm work ethic; without it you’ll never survive.”
Lauren Kay is a dancer and writer based in NYC.
To reserve enough energy for eight Lion King performances each week, Ray Mercer’s exercise choices are simple and efficient. He hits the gym four times a week for strength and stamina training.
His regimen includes four sets of 15 repetitions of each: